Tuesday September 8th, 2009

When I picked the Falcons to win the NFC South, I did it because of faith in three people -- quarterback Matt Ryan, GM Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. I didn't do it because I trusted the defense. Not yet. The Falcons might have to win a bunch of 34-27 games this year to fulfill my faith.

I think Ryan has got a chance to be a Peyton Manning; in my conversation with five young quarterbacks at Lake Tahoe in July, Tony Romo compared Ryan to Manning too. And I think Dimitroff and Smith are two examples of the deep roster of talent in front offices and on coaching staffs around the NFL. They finally got their chance to run teams, and they delivered.

I trust Dimitroff and Smith will figure out how to fix a bad defense. The Falcons were a nice Cinderella story last year, fueled by the precocious Ryan. But an offense that exploded (259 points in 2007, 391 in 2008) hid the league's 24th-rated unit, and in the offseason, Dimitroff did major surgery.

Dimitroff knew he was taking a chance in jettisoning vets Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson, Michael Boley, Keith Brooking and Dominique Foxworth; the only one he'd have chosen to keep was Foxworth, but after the Ravens gave Foxworth a $6.8-million-a-year deal, Dimitroff backed off. Too much for a guy who's not a No. 1 corner. In the place of these veterans is mostly youth. The projected Falcons starting defense has nine players 27 or younger. The projected lineup:

An asterisk: Newly signed Brian Williams (8 years experience, age 30), who started six games at safety and nine at cornerback in Jacksonville last year, along with Chevis Jackson (2, 23), Tye Hill (4, 27) and rookie William Moore (1, 24) are competing for playing time in a secondary that is still under construction.

"What's exciting is we can get some real speed out there this year,'' said Dimitroff. "People look at our team and say, 'You're missing five starters on defense.' Do I regret it? No. We might take a step back at first, but we'll gain experience and continue to grow.''

The key is going to be pressure from Abraham, coming off a career year, and the underachieving Anderson, because Houston and Grimes (and probable nickel Hill) are not great cover guys. The Falcons open against three veteran quarterbacks from two 2008 playoff teams -- Miami, Carolina, at New England -- so we'll see if the Falcons can come together as a young defense quickly.

*******

Coming out of Penn State, Deon Butler blew scouts away at the NFL Combine with times ranging from 4.32 to 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash. But there was the size -- 5-foot-10, 170 pounds -- in a league going bigger every year at receiver, and the fact he never had great stats at Penn State. So he lasted until late in the third round, where the Seahawks picked him 91st overall in a fairly ho-hum move.

Since then, there's been nothing ordinary about Butler, who has worked his way into Seattle's four-receiver sets, likely to be at least 25 percent of the Seahawks' offense. And with the likelihood of Seattle opening in a three-wide look much of the time, and with the recent injury history of receivers in Seattle, don't be surprised to see Butler, who has become an early favorite of Matt Hasselbeck, move into the starting lineup at some point early in the season.

In the first series of Seattle's second preseason game against Denver, Butler beat starting corner Andre Goodman with a quick move at the line, then sped past him down the left sideline for a 34-yard touchdown. That said much -- that he'd advanced fast enough in the preseason to be on the field on the first series with the starters, and that Hasselbeck already had the kind of comfort level with him to look his way against an established NFL corner.

Butler's a perfect guy to use your last-round fantasy pick on, if you haven't already drafted. If you have, I'd pick him up on waivers. He's got the kind of deep speed that could make him a touchdown machine, even in limited play, because defense are going to get magnetized by T.J. Houshmandzadeh and John Carlson, the go-to guys, the chains-movers, in the Seattle offense. Butler will be the early surprise.

"He didn't have great stats in college because Penn State's obviously not a passing school,'' said Tim Ruskell, Seattle's president of football operations. "But when we did our homework on him, we saw how many times he was open. And in the Rose Bowl against USC, after the game was pretty much out of hand, we saw how he was beating some great defensive backs and then making them miss after the catch. He showed he was more than just a speed guy.''

"I want to be known as a complete receiver, not just a speed guy,'' Butler told me.

Kid, stick with Hasselbeck. He's going to give you your chance.

*******

Now onto your email:

NFL EXPANSION TO EUROPE WON'T WORK. From Mike of San Antonio: "You may be right about the NFL expanding to Europe, but here's a prediction: It will be as successful as baseball/basketball has been in Canada. The tax implications just weigh too heavily on prospective free agents and teams in cap-controlled payrolls. If you were a free agent ready to sign a $10-million-a-year deal, would you rather sign it in Texas and pay 35 percent in total income taxes or somewhere where you pay 60 percent in taxes? That's a lot of lost take-home pay.''

That won't be the reason why football works or doesn't in Europe. Chris Canty went to the Giants in free agency and will be taxed out the wazoo in New Jersey; I spent time with Canty and his agent during his free-agent deliberations, and I never heard them once mention taxes. Not saying it's a non-issue, but my experience is players don't eliminate the Raiders and Chargers and Giants and Redskins because of taxes.

COORDINATOR BLUES. From Joseph B. of El Paso: "Which of the three offensive coordinator moves did you like the most -- Chiefs, Bills or Bucs? Least? Also, do any of those teams have a shot at making the playoffs this season?''

Well, I don't see any of the three being above .500, and I'm sure I'm not alone there. I think the troubling ones are Kansas City and Tampa Bay because these were new coaches and administrations interviewing candidates and settling on two experienced coaches, Chan Gailey and Jeff Jagodzinski. And you get a month into training camp and find out you don't like them and can't work together?

The Turk Schonert firing seems to be a clash of philosophies. Schonert wanted to be Sam Wyche and continually throw changeups at defenses; Dick Jauron said with a new offensive line containing inexperienced players, he didn't think all the wrinkles could work. I almost understand that one, though I think Schonert's a bright guy.

CARSON PALMER'S A PROPHET. From Toby of Chicago: "I read Carson Palmer's comments about somebody dying on the field and I agree with him. It's scary but the NFL is like America in general. We are reactive instead of proactive, and until someone dies on the field, no one will do anything. What's been the reaction around the league to Palmer's comments to you?''

Almost nothing. NFL people don't want the show to be spoiled. There's a big weekend coming up, and a big season, and woe be the person who rains on the NFL's shiny parade.

I DON'T KNOW FOR SURE. From Christopher Waters of Blauvelt, N.Y.: "Why did you pick a New York Giant for the cover of your new book?''

I think because Wayne Lucier was local, has businesses in northern New Jersey, and was only a year removed from his life as an NFL offensive lineman. The design people for the book wanted a guy who looked big and offensive lineman-ish. Lucier, a Giants' lineman from 2003 to '05, qualified.

I THINK HE HAS THAT RIGHT. From Leif Trana of Rykkinn, Norway: "Peter, great work. Any comment on Dan Snyder's Redskins suing their own fans? Makes me proud to root for the Packers!''

A reader from Norway! Hooray! Leif, the way I look at that one is pretty simple: If you sign a contract to buy anything, and for whatever reason you renege on the deal, the people you signed the contract with have every right to come after their money. It's often hard to defend Dan Snyder, buy I can't kill him on this one. He has massive debt service on his stadium, and he relies on X amount of dollars coming in every year from people who have signed contracts to buy seats and pay down that debt service.

IT'S THE TAXPAYERS, NOT JONES, WHO BUILT THE STADIUM. From Michael Abernethy of Austin, Texas: "You wrote, 'and if Jones spent more money than any single person has ever spent to build an American stadium...' but there's a correction. It's more money than any group of taxpayers has ever spent for a stadium. Let's not forget that a majority of this stadium was paid for by taxpayer dollars, a true fleecing of their money for America's highest valued sports franchise. Throw in another $150 million from the NFL, and Jones' contribution to the stadium is estimated at only 10-20 percent of its total cost. With all the uproar about taxpayer bailouts in today's news, it's disappointing there's not more media attention on this crazy situation, where a stadium financed by the average taxpayer has become too expensive for that same average taxpayer to even attend a game.''

Point well made.

LET'S REMEMBER ZIM. From Marc of Freddy Beach, New Brunswick, Canada: "Thanks so much for keeping Dr. Z squarely in the hearts and minds of your readers. Is there an email address where we can send our thoughts and wishes, that his wife, Linda, can read for him?''

Sure. Send to siwriters@simail.com. We'll be sure to get your sentiments to Linda. Thanks.

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